Duncan Smith's attack on working poor a 'smokescreen', say critics

By staff writers
December 31, 2012

As the government continues its aggressive rhetoric against benefits and claimants, welfare campaigners have pledged to continue the struggle against the government's welfare cuts and changes into 2013.

Yesterday (30 December), the government continued its assault on the working poor in an article by under-fire Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, whose claims about fraud have been described as "very misleading".

The backdrop to Mr Duncan Smith's latest intervention, designed to shape key parliamentary debates in 2013, is deep and substantial.

Back in October 2012, the Children's Society, Citizens Advice and the consortium Disability Rights UK published a report that showed that up to 500,000 disabled people and families could lose out as a result of the current structure of Universal Credit, due to be rolled out over the coming year.

Their research demonstrated that 100,000 households with children may have their incomes lowered by up to £28 a week.

By the same token, 230,000 people with severe disabilities who do not have an adult to assist them are likely to be out of pocket by between £28 and £58 a week. Another 116,000 disabled people already in work are at risk of losing £40 a week.

The government, which is using flawed assessments to remove disabled and sick people from benefits to save money, without proper regard to 'real world' work or domestic needs, says that those currently on benefit will not see a reduction in their support.

But welfare analysts point out that this is not true either, since the "transitional protection" payment created to achieve this will be frozen at the time of the switchover and not index linked. This means that, from day one, it will start to be devalued by inflation.

In addition, some 5 million people will be required to be constantly looking for 'more or better paid' work as a condition of keeping in-work support. Those who fail to meet stiff requirements in this regard may have benefits sanctioned, or be forced onto workfare.

Charities, along with church and faith groups and increasingly vocal and active grassroots campaigns lead by disabled and sick people - like the War on Welfare (WOWpetition) initiative - are urging the government to rethink its welfare and work policies substantially.

Prime Minister David Cameron's claim that overall funding is going up has also been disproved by researchers, but continues to be the line pumped out by Whitehall and repeated in mass circulation right-wing tabloid newspapers.

Adjusting for inflation, disability benefits are projected to go down by £222 million from £13.559 billion this year to £13.337 billion in 2016/17.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail and others are maintaining a remorseless attack on claimants, seeking to brand them workshy, and this week Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith - who has been shocked by the strength of opposition to his welfare-cutting agenda - has launched a broadside against the tax credit system in order to bolster current proposals and refocus his attack on the working poor.

Critics say that this is a "smokescreen" to detract attention from the serious damage that the coalition government's policies are causing.

Last week disturbing testimonies heard by the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), a Whitehall body responsible for monitoring Mr Duncan Smith's planned welfare changes, showed that there is a danger of driving vulnerable families out of mainstream society.

The SSAC was particularly critical of the sanctions regime the government intends to introduce alongside Universal Credit, showing it to be inflexible and out-of-touch with the realities of poor, unemployed and marginalised people's lives.

Mr Duncan Smith has swept aside such criticisms and yesterday (30 December 2012) went on the attack again with an article in the Daily Telegraph claiming that tax credits, among the provisions to be replaced by Universal Credit, have "wasted" £10 billion.

Taxpayers are losing out to illicit welfare claimants and fraudsters from "around the world" targeting the system, the Work and Pensions Secretary claimed. His views were being reproduced uncritically by the BBC and other news outlets last night.

But critics point out that the minister's claims are conflating fraud with error, that the "tourism" allegations are unsubstantiated, and that research by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) itself shows fraud to be small, steadily falling and at a ten-year low overall.

Meanwhile, underpayments are running at £1.3 billion and benefits unclaimed by those entitled to them amount to around £12 billion, dwarfing the (mostly) error and (some fraud) estimate of £3.4 billion - 0.8 per cent of total benefit expenditure.

Moreover, tax fraud by the wealthy over the same period has cost £500 billion, 50 times the contested benefit-related sum cited by Mr Duncan Smith.

Last night the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) of the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches described the Telegraph article as "very misleading", adding on Twitter that "fraud levels [have been] decreasing for a decade and [are] now at historically low levels."

Simon Barrow, co-director of the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia, commented: "The government is continually trying to justify its welfare changes and cuts, which research shows to be damaging to the most vulnerable, with a raft of misleading claims about those who receive benefit support.

"It is bypassing the fact that the overwhelming majority of those who receive also contribute, in tax and other ways. It is effectively labelling all claimants (the majority of whom are in work), as 'scroungers', all disabled and sick people (irrespective of their real-world circumstances) as 'shirkers', and all the jobless (without regard to the actual availability of viable paid work) as 'skivers'.

"Iain Duncan Smith's latest claims about tax credit look suspiciously like an attempt to divert attention from up to 500,000 disabled people and their families who may lose out under Universal Credit. Equally he is facing sharp and well-researched criticisms from the Social Security Advisory Committee and the Work and Pensions Select Committee, mounting pressure from charities and church groups to change course, and a new e-democracy petition against the government's 'war on welfare'.

"It is important to examine the bigger picture here. Just as housing benefit subsidises high-rent landlords and shows the need for rent controls to support those in housing need, so tax credits subsidise low-wage employers and need to be replaced by a fair credit system alongside real action to tackle poverty pay and lack of sustainable jobs. Policies that stigmatise and punish poorly paid, unemployed, disabled and sick people, along with those with mental health and other problems, are morally, politically and economically wrong, no matter which government introduces them.

"For many, it may be additionally shocking that a punitive approach which seems to lack both compassion and understanding towards the most vulnerable in society is being pursued by a government minister who uses the cloak of 'Christian values' for such policies and appears to have no regard for his own church's social teaching," said the Ekklesia co-director.

The Universal Credit is due to replace Jobseeker's Allowance, tax credits, Income Support, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and housing benefits with a single payment.

The whole system will be 'piloted' in parts of northeast England in April 2013. It will come into force across Britain, for all new claimants, from October 2013. There are fears that the piloting is inadequate in both time and scope to allow for significant reforms to what the coalition is determined to push through.

* Duncan Smith condemns tax credits as 'not fit for purpose': http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-20873180

* FactCheck: IDS tax credit claims discredited: http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/factcheck-ids-tax-credit-claims-disc...

* 'No (tax) credit for Iain Duncan Smith', by Symon Hill: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17714

* 'Government told it must face significant Universal Credit problems': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17459

* National Statistics report, 'Fraud and Error in the Benefit System: 2011/12 Estimates' (DWP): http://research.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd2/index.php?page=fraud_error

* 'Billions in benefits go unclaimed' (BBC, February 2012): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17139088

* Is spending on disability benefits being cut or going up? Full Fact: http://fullfact.org/factchecks/disability_benefits_cut_universal_credit-...

* 'War on Welfare' (WOW) petition: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/43154


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.